As we hit the first day of June, we can far better assess where the Sox are than when I wrote my last mailbag. At that point, the Sox were 8.5 games out of first place, and were embarking upon a ridiculous stretch that included the Yankees, Twins, Phillies, and Rays. The Sox are now a far more respectable five games out, with the Rays’ loss last night, and are close to the Yankees and the Blue Jays for second place in the division. Most importantly, though, they are playing far better baseball.
That’s not to say that things are perfect. There are still questions about some of the pitchers — about Daisuke Matsuzaka and Josh Beckett and John Lackey. Those might be answered in the next couple of weeks, or they might continue to be questions for the rest of the season. (Ah, if only I had a crystal ball, as manager Terry Francona often says.)
But we’re now headed into a stretch in which the Sox could clean up a bit. They’ll be facing the A’s this week at home, where they need to be better about beating the bad-to-mediocre teams. While Oakland is leading the West, they also have a 10-15 record on the road. That should mean some wins for the Sox. Boston then heads to Baltimore (15-36) and Cleveland (18-31). The Sox have to beat such bottom feeders, have to play as well as they did against the better teams — that’s what good teams do.
So, after this lovely Memorial Day weekend, I’ll leave with you with some varied and interesting questions. There are answers regarding the team’s pitching when being caught by Jason Varitek vs. Victor Martinez, John Farrell’s work with that pitching staff, and Cowboy Joe West. And with those teasers, I’ll let you get to the questions. Please enjoy, and send me questions for the next mailbag while you’re at it!
Mike from Madison, Alabama asks: Amalie, Given the fact the Sox were never “that bad” when they were losing, I believe they are “not that good” now that they’ve swept Tampa Bay and then more recently struggled at home against the “lowly” Royals. With Beckett nursing his $68-million back and Dice-K converting $101M US to Yen, what are their chances? They seem to be struggling with runners in scoring position at least when it counts and Lackey hasn’t hit his stride (can you say Edgar Renteria?) I still have many doubts. Allay our fears, please.
Answer: Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure we know what they are. Even though it’s June, and the Sox have been through a couple of tests, it’s hard to tell whether they are as good as they looked against the Rays or as bad as they looked the first month of the season. My guess is that they’re somewhere in between, though probably more skewed toward the good rather than the bad. I still think their pitching is a strength, despite Beckett’s lengthened stay on the disabled list and 7.29 ERA and Lackey’s struggle with too many baserunners. I believe that Lackey is better than what he’s shown, based on his career numbers, which are far lower than the way Lackey has pitched in terms of WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio. On the other hand, David Ortiz is surely not going to hit .363, as he did in May, for the rest of the season. And Adrian Beltre won’t continue to get a hit every three at bats. But, ultimately, I do think that the Sox will continue to stay close enough to the top of the American League East to keep themselves in contention for a while. I don’t know if they’ll make it to the postseason (which I predicted they would, as the wild card winners). Wish I could do a better job of allaying those fears.
Buddy from Lake Forest, California asks: In the words of Bernie Carbo … ” I probably smoked two joints, drank about three or four beers, got to the ballpark, took some [amphetamines], took a pain pill, drank a cup of coffee, chewed some tobacco, had a cigarette, and got up to the plate and hit.’’ Amalie, I was wondering what is your game time ritual? It’s a long season, its not too early to start something new!
Answer: Well, Buddy, my game-time ritual is definitely nothing like Bernie Carbo’s. Seriously, though, the time before the game is pretty busy for most reporters. We’re spending our time trying to gather pregame information and pregame stories that often change quite a bit by the end of the night. We’re transcribing Terry Francona’s session with reporters and other interviews with other players, putting together notebooks. We all also often eat dinner with each other in the media dining room behind the press box. But I guess my small ritual is that I don’t write the lineups in my scorebook until just before the first pitch. I’ve been burned too many times with lineup changes and no white-out to write them earlier! So, yeah, that’s sort of like Carbo’s ritual…
Eugene from Greenwich, Connecticut asks: Any explanation for the struggles of Josh Reddick? He’s batting .193 in Triple A with a 7-31 walk/strikeout ratio. The performance of some of our top prospects has been almost as disappointing as the major league club.
Answer: I put this question recently to director of player development Mike Hazen. He said there was “nothing of note,” in an e-mail message. He said that, mostly, Reddick had been taking better swings with little to show for them. But after a difficult April (.210 average, .242 OBP, .694 OPS), Reddick has had an even more difficult May (.165, .207, .482). That should put to rest all those calls for Reddick from fans who wanted him up with the major league club instead of Darnell McDonald or another outfielder. Reddick is still just 23 years old, and young players go through slumps in the minors (as we saw last season with Lars Anderson). Reddick still hasn’t demonstrated that he can hit Triple A pitching, after hitting just .127 in his brief 71-at bat stay in Pawtucket last season. Obviously there’s more work to be done by the outfielder, though there aren’t any easy answers as to why he’s struggling.
Richard from New York asks: Hi – great job every week! Just wondering at what point someone will make the logical conclusion that some of the woes of our pitching staff is related to the fact that Jason Varitek (who is know for his pregame preparation/knowledge) is not the regular catcher? Not to take away from Victor Martinez’s abilities, but he just does not seem to call a game the same way Varitek did/does. Thanks.
TK from Santa Fe, New Mexico asks: What is the ERA when Varitek catches vs. Martinez?
Answer: I’ll answer two questions at once here. There’s no question that Jason Varitek calls a good game. He has been universally praised by pitchers for his work with them throughout his tenure in Boston. But the Sox have made the decision that Varitek is not their everyday catcher anymore, and that’s for a number of reasons. Though Varitek has been excellent offensively this season, he did not demonstrate that last year, and is clearly benefiting from his reduced role. He’s had more time to spend preparing offensively for games, and has not had the same wear-and-tear on his 38-year-old body. As for his numbers with the pitching staff, here are a few key stats from baseball-reference.com. This season, the pitching staff has a 3.74 ERA with Varitek behind the plate. They have a 4.87 ERA with Martinez. But you also have to remember that Martinez has caught double the games that Varitek has this season. I’m not going to argue your point that Varitek is a better defensive catcher, but there are factors that outweigh that, along with the fact that the pitching staff has vastly improved its performance as May has gone on — no matter who is behind the plate. And I do have to point out that Clay Buchholz has made tremendous strides in the second half of last season and first half of this one, all while being caught mostly by Martinez.
Kris from Los Angeles, California asks: Will the Red Sox finally hold John Farrell accountable for he Red Sox pitching? The team’s pitching has gotten worse every year since 2007. Have they discussed replacing him?
Answer: I know that there has been some question as to the effectiveness of the Red Sox pitching staff under the tutelage of John Farrell. And there certainly have been some disappointments this season regarding the starters. That is beginning to change, however, which is either a testament to the way Farrell has dealt with the pitchers’ struggles or a testament to the true talent of those pitchers. I do believe that there has been no discussion about replacing Farrell. He’s far more likely to succeed Francona as the next manager of the Sox than he is to be let go this season. And that doesn’t even take into account that, of late, the Sox have been pitching much better. There are still disappointments, of course, especially in the form of Beckett, but Jon Lester and Buchholz have been absolutely dominant of late. Tim Wakefield has generally done an OK job of filling in for Beckett. Lackey has been mediocre, with too many baserunners in too few innings, something that the pitcher has been unwilling to admit to the media but which Farrell has expressed concern about. And Matsuzaka has been an enigma. Honestly, it’s hard to know how much of that comes from the pitchers and how much from the pitching coach, but it’s safe to say that Farrell isn’t going anywhere soon.
Ed from Brimfield, Massachusetts asks: What does BFP stand for in the pitchers’ box scores?
Answer: BFP stands for Batters Faced by Pitcher. It’s pretty much the equivalent of plate appearances for pitchers.
Mel from Connecticut asks: As always thanks for a great column. I have asked several sportswriters via e-mail this question and have yet to see it answered as I was curious as to how those outside Boston were reading the situation. I will ask you now and hope for a reply. I am befuddled by the intense media scrutiny on David Ortiz. It seems clear he is going to be a slow starter, something most sluggers seem affected by. Why is the media so quick to target David? May 18th, look at his numbers and those of the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira. Now Tex is a notorious slow starter, his bat is a drag the first weeks of every single season in his career. Now here is Ortiz who is declining, we can see that, but still turning the corner when a majority of the sluggers in the majors; at the end of April going into May. So why the target on our Ortiz from Day 1? It seems almost as if he is being punished for being slow starter as his skills declined whereas someone who has never been able to contribute big numbers in the early season is given a free pass. What’s the logic behind that?
Answer: I think there’s a very easy answer, Mel. There is no one in baseball who thinks that Mark Teixeira won’t recover. There was the question of whether Ortiz was done, given his intense struggles at the start of 2009. Sure, he recovered to hit well by the end of the season, but that didn’t erase the fact that there were grave concerns about his bat speed and his ability to be an effective offensive weapon. You admit that Ortiz is declining. That is the issue. Even though he has been among the best hitters in baseball over the last month, Ortiz is on the downside of his career. Teixeira remains on the upside. Ortiz will be 35 years old this season; Teixeira just turned 30. The two players are at very different points in their careers, and there is reason to be worried about the production of Ortiz at this point. That doesn’t even take into account the fact that while Teixeira contributes to the Yankees in other ways as a very good defensive first baseman, Ortiz’s entire job is to hit. And he wasn’t doing it. No one is punishing Ortiz for being a slow starter. The media is simply reporting on what is happening and what might happen. It’s entirely possible that we were too heavy on Ortiz and too light on Teixeira, but there’s no question that there were valid reasons for the concern about Ortiz’s slow start. It wasn’t the end, but it could have been. The slow start for Teixeira is hardly it for his career.
Dave from Louisville, Kentucky asks: Hello Amalie. I watched Jason Varitek speaking with Dice-K during his last start. What language is Jason using? I heard when Dice-K signed that Varitek was going to learn the language a bit for him and Hideki Okajima. Did that happen or is Dice-K getting better at English. Also, how does Victor Martinez handle language barriers with pitchers? Thanks for the time! My first iPad submission!
Answer: Wonder if you’re now reading this on the iPad. Thanks for the question. Matsuzaka has learned quite a bit of English over his nearly four years in the United States. You can tell during his press conferences — where once he leaned entirely on Masa Hoshino, his interpreter, he know understands at least parts of most questions. This is especially true for baseball terminology. Francona has also made reference to the fact that, while they clearly can’t have a lengthy one-on-one conversation, Matsuzaka understands most of the baseball-related information. While Varitek might have picked up a few words of Japanese, they mostly use English on the mound, as does Martinez with the English-speaking pitchers. I’m sure he uses Spanish with Spanish-speaking relievers (Ramon Ramirez, really) given their interactions in the clubhouse, though I have not specifically asked.
Scott from Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania asks: In many the articles I have read and continue to read the writers state that the Red Sox are paying Daisuke Matsuzaka $103 million. But it is substantially south of this figure is it not? Aren’t the writers including the posting fee sent to his former team?
Answer: The Sox are not paying Matsuzaka $103 million. Boston paid a posting fee of $51,111,111 to the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka’s old team in Japan. They are paying him $52 million over his six-year contract, a deal that escalates in later years. He’s making $8 million this season, and $10 million in each of the next two seasons, the final ones of his current deal.
Ben from Boston asks: I just heard umpire Cowboy Joe West give an 11-minute interview to ESPN Chicago. It seems completely inappropriate for a umpire to give interviews after controversial calls. Also, his publicist announced that he would be in Boston and be available for speaking engagements, specifically regarding his thoughts on the pace of baseball games. Is West a concern to Selig’s office and do you anticipate any repercussions?
Answer: It is completely inappropriate for Joe West to be doing what he’s doing. There’s a policy in place that after controversial calls, reporters can request to speak to umpires, and usually the crew chief is made available to a pool reporter. (That pool reporter then gives the quotes to the rest of the writers.) West is a crew chief. But the antics that West has been pulling have been far out of bounds, including making sure that reporters know where he’s going to be when the policy is to keep umpires’ schedules under wraps. Umpires are not supposed to make themselves the story, and that is clearly what West has been doing, from his statements about Sox-Yankees time of game issues to his recent situation with Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle. According to a report by Yahoo!, Major League Baseball is planning to either fine or suspend West, and has already reprimanded him because of the emails sent by his publicist. He has already been fined for the situation with the White Sox. Essentially, no one should know West’s name. The fact that everyone does at this point is a problem, and MLB should address this.